Many cultures and cuisines make do with leftover (stale) bread. It’s a smart move, not merely a frugal one.
Leftover bread adds much flavor and a yeoman’s heft to the foods with which it is cooked. And it’s a better stretcher than most anything else available. Without it, we would have far less gazpacho, migas (the delicious Spanish vegetable and sausage dish), romesco sauce or good meatloaf.
It’s the base of “pain perdu” (“lost bread”), the original French name for what we call “French toast.” Without it, there’d be no downhome American bread pudding, Apple Brown Betty or even Thanksgiving dinner’s stuffing, all of which profitably use up stale bread.
But, for my palate, no one bests an Italian (especially a Tuscan) at cooking with leftover bread that might be days old. What elevates Panzanella — chopped fresh tomato, onion, olive oil and basil — but the bread? There’s no gut-heating to a ribollita — that twice-cooked Tuscan stew of black cabbage, beans and other vegetables — without its stale crusts.
You’ll find Pappa al Pomodoro cooked throughout Italy; perhaps, just perhaps, Tuscany’s is best. The recipe here utilizes the best canned or jarred tomatoes that you can find, so you needn’t wait for summer’s bounty of fresh tomatoes.
“Pappa” is Italian for “pap,” as in porridge or a child’s pabulum. The word fittingly describes the texture. The finished dish would benefit from the crunch of a crouton or six.
In his “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” the greatest cookbook in Italian of its day, Pellegrino Artusi writes a recipe for what he calls “panata,” a mix of crumbled leftover bread, eggs, nutmeg, broth and nutty cheese. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think it a sort of dessert, so I’ve changed out the recipe’s original water or broth for hot milk, added some honey and ended with toppers of sweet butter.
The ample Parmigiano-Reggiano makes it a sweet-savory dessert, if you like that sort. Use ricotta or mascarpone instead if you prefer a straightforwardly sweet dessert. Just mind the texture going into the pot: sloshy, not batter-like.
Artusi’s recipe instructs to “grate” the chunks of stale bread. He didn’t have the happy pulses of a food processor. We do.
Pappa al Pomodoro
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6-8 as a side.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped small
4 cloves garlic, peeled and slivered or minced
1/4 to 3/8 teaspoon dried pepper flakes, to taste
1 28-ounce jar or can whole peeled tomatoes
4 large or 6 medium leaves basil, stemmed and roughly torn
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon honey
12 ounces stale bread, torn up small or cubed (about 4 cups lightly packed)
4 cups vegetable broth or water
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Additional basil leaves, in chiffonade, for garnish
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, over medium heat, warm the oil and, in it, cook the chopped onions, covered, stirring a couple of times, until they are translucent, about 6-7 minutes. Raise the heat slightly, add the garlic and pepper flakes, stirring them in, and cook just until the garlic is aromatic, about 90 seconds more.
Add the tomatoes, either crushing them well with your hands as you add them or with a potato masher against the bottom of the pot, then the torn basil leaves, tomato paste and honey. Stir everything well and continue mashing the tomatoes until they are mushy. Cook for 3-4 minutes until heated through.
Add the bread pieces and stir to coat. Add the broth (or water), bring to a simmer and cook at a simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and mashing again, if necessary, until the pappa resembles well-cooked oatmeal. Correct for salt and black pepper (you may need a good amount of salt, especially if serving at room temperature or cooler).
Serve hot, warm or even cooler, garnished with basil chiffonade and swirls of olive oil.
Adapted from Pellegrino Artusi, “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” (University of Toronto Press, 2003). Serves 3-4.
130 grams (4.5 ounces, 1 heaping cup) stale bread, grated (see note)
4 large eggs, lightly whisked
50 grams (2 ounces, 2/3 cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons honey
1-2 cups heated whole milk, depending on dryness of bread
Mix everything together but the milk and then incorporate the milk until you get a slurry that is lighter than pancake batter but thicker than cream. Let the mix sit for 1/2 hour to thicken slightly (as the bread begins absorbing the eggs and milk). If stiffer than pancake batter, add a bit more warmed milk. What cooks next should be about as dense as pre-whipped heavy cream.
Ready a double boiler with simmering water, or fashion one out of a large, low pot 1/3 filled with simmering water into which easily fits a medium-large saucepan. Pour the panata mixture into the top part of the double boiler or into the saucepan and let the mix begin to thicken over the heat, stirring occasionally.
Once it begins to set markedly, about 5 minutes in, use a wooden or silicon spatula to gather it gently but frequently into the center, scraping the cooked portion from the bottom and sides, mounting it into the center. Neither let it stiffen into a solid mass nor overly break it up, as with curds of scrambled eggs.
Serve the panata by making an indentation in each serving and filling that with a small knob of room temperature unsalted butter.
Note: No need to take Artusi at his written word and “grate” the stale bread. Use a modern food processor and pulse the bread 2-3 times for the same result.
2 cups hearty-crumbed bread (such as ciabatta or good quality baguette), stale, if possible, shorn of its crusts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 medium ripe red tomatoes, peeled and halved
1/2 sweet white or red onion, peeled and sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed into a paste with a bit of sea salt
3 flat silver anchovies, drained
2 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and squeezed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons good quality red wine vinegar
1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeded, deveined, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup Persian cucumbers, partially peeled, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
8 large or 12-15 medium leaves fresh basil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toast the bread: In a slow oven (200 degrees), dry out the bread cubes on a baking sheet for 20-25 minutes. If you wish them golden, turn on the broiler at some distance from them for 10 minutes to finish. Remove from the oven, set aside and cool.
Prepare the tomatoes: With a fine sieve set over a large bowl, seed the tomatoes, squeezing out their juices. Cut the flesh into 1/2-inch pieces and set aside. Discard the seeds from the sieve. Replace the reserved pieces in the sieve to continue to drain. Reserve the strained “tomato water” in the bowl.
Prepare the onions: Put the onion slices in a large bowl and cover by 2 inches with cold water. Squeeze the onions in your hand, tightly, 5 times over. Drain them of the water (it will be “milky”) and repeat the rinsing and squeezing 3 additional times. After a final draining, gather them inside a kitchen towel, wringing out as much water as you can. Reserve.
Make the dressing: Make a paste of the smashed garlic, anchovies and capers, grinding them together using a mortar and pestle or the flat side of a wooden spoon against the side of bowl. To the paste, add the olive oil and vinegar and a healthy pinch of salt. Whisk or stir well to combine. Toss in the diced pepper and cucumber and fold to coat with the dressing. Set aside.
In a very large bowl or deep serving platter, place the bread cubes and sprinkle generously with all the reserved tomato water. Let the bread soak up the tomato water for 15 minutes, tossing once or twice. Add the reserved tomato pieces, the onions and the dressing with the peppers and cucumbers. Correct for salt.
Rip up the basil leaves into smaller pieces and sprinkle over the panzanella. Toss everything together thoroughly and finish with generous grindings of black pepper. Serve.
Note: If the bread is very stale and, after sopping up the liquids, remains dryish, sprinkle with additional extra virgin olive oil.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]